Roma ★★★★½

I’m finding it difficult to fully articulate Roma as a whole because Cuaron’s individual frames are so complex and well-realized, like tableaus bursting with potential. It’s hard to imagine another film this year boasting better cinematography than the stark black-and-white compositions he conjures up. The movie deftly alternates between restrained, simple images of its protagonist Cleo (Yalitza Aparicio) completing her daily tasks and the busy, frenetic world surrounding her. There’s a rich texture and depth to each shot that demands your attention; catching all the details of the set, the movement, and above all Aparicio’s face is a challenging task. Since each shot leans on the long side, the sound design carries a lot of weight in making the world feel realistically rich and lively. In dropping a musical score, Cuaron allows the unvarnished sensory details of the world to envelop you, and it’s wonderfully effective.

The loose, episodic narrative structure is a good fit for this style and fits the movie’s genesis as an autobiographical story. Roma is drawn from Cuaron’s childhood, but it’s completely free of directorial ego and is focused resolutely on Cleo’s story. There’s a sweetness to Aparicio’s interactions with the children that never feels false, but Cuaron doesn’t avoid confronting the power imbalance inherent in her work. Both she and the family’s matriarch, Sofia, are confronted with the same abandonment, but Cleo is forced to reckon with the consequences in a much more painful and vulnerable way. So much of the movie’s critique of class comes from pauses in dialogue and body language. We hear Sofia snap at Cleo a handful of times, but more tellingly, we never get to hear her muster an apology.

Roma leaves issues of class largely unresolved, opting to emphasize how people are alike rather than different. Both Sofia and Cleo are forced to reckon with the fact that the men in their lives are indifferent or outright dangerous, and form a new kind of family. The conclusion risks feeling unearned in its optimism, but Cleo’s world is so marked by strife that it seems entirely necessary. Cuaron doesn’t erase inequality in retrospective memory, he yearns for a more meaningful connection to combat it.

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